Lining up the first sprint of a new season is always a complicated business and doing it at 2,500 metres above sea level only adds a layer of difficulty. Even so, the disappointment was palpable among Mark Cavendish’s Astana Qazaqstan squad after stage 1 of the Tour Colombia in Duitama as they filed their way through a corridor of fans towards their team van.
One local leant across a barrier and made energetic attempts to draw Cavendish’s attention – “Mark! Mark! Mark!” – but for the Manxman and his lead-out train, the defeat was still too raw. Only Alexey Lutsenko managed to raise a smile when the same fan eventually turned his efforts to serenading him instead: “Dale Alexey!”
In a frenzied finale on roads made treacherous by persistent rain – “Total chaos,” per winner Fernando Gaviria – Astana Qazaqstan’s initial plan hadn’t survived contact with the opposition, and Cavendish had to settle for third place in his first outing of the year.
It was also Michael Mørkøv’s first race in Astana colours after he left QuickStep to re-enter Cavendish’s service over the winter. The Dane, by consensus the most skilled lead-out man in the peloton, has been in this game long enough to know that the occasional false start is an occupational hazard.
“We didn’t set it up like we hoped, we started a bit too early,” Mørkøv told Cyclingnews in Paipa on Wednesday. “Maybe it was a bit of nerves, the first race of the season. It was also a new configuration for the team. In the end, it was disappointing not to win the race because I really think we had the team and Mark had the sprint to win.”
There was, of course, mitigation for the result, even if Mørkøv was reluctant to cite altitude as an excuse. In the four-year history of this race, however, it’s telling that Colombian or Ecuadorian riders have claimed all but two of the stages. Although Mørkøv, Cavendish et al have been in Colombia since mid-January, there is a clear home-field advantage at this race.
“Of course, there’s a lot of unknowns here,” Mørkøv conceded. “We were at altitude but even though we’ve been here for three weeks, I still feel that I don’t get so much oxygen, so of course we were aware that we needed to be very careful coming into the sprint. And in the end, we obviously got beaten by a very, very fast Colombian…”
While altitude training has long been more or less de rigueur for general classification riders, sprinters have understandably been less inclined to head for the heights lest the repeated endurance efforts dampen their explosivity. The key, Mørkøv explained, is in the timing.
“It has to be in specific doses because I think it’s not really necessary for a sprinter to be at altitude and it’s not always the best, because above all you really need the strength and the power,” he said. “But for this time of the year, it was more endurance-based and it’s a good solution when you’re trying to build up a base for the season.”
With that in mind, it will hardly be classed as a catastrophe for Cavendish if he departs Bogotá on Sunday evening without picking up a win at the Tour Colombia. The main objective of the expedition was to bank weeks of training in Rionegro and Boyacá.
“We are here to prepare for the season, to be the best possible prepared for the Tour de France in the summer,” Mørkøv said. “Of course, when you’ve been here for three weeks, you want to come home with a victory too, and that’s what we hoped for yesterday. But if that doesn’t happen, it doesn’t mean we’re not going to win later on in the season.”
Tour de France
Mørkøv was the best supporting actor at the 2021 Tour, helping Cavendish to the haul of four stage wins that saw him equal Eddy Merckx’s record of 34 victories at the race. Even though the Dane was deployed primarily in Fabio Jakobsen’s service the following year, he linked up with Cavendish for another win on the Giro d’Italia in Balatonfüred.
QuickStep’s decision to designate Jakobsen as their number one sprinter triggered Cavendish’s departure from the team at the end of 2022 and he eventually landed at Astana after the collapse of the B&B Hotels squad. On rejoining Cavendish’s side a year later, Mørkøv has detected a distinct change in mood music. If Cavendish felt constantly compelled to fight for space at QuickStep, he has been handed considerably more creative control at Astana.
“I feel a change because I feel he’s very comfortable in Astana,” Mørkøv said. “I think that he feels he’s really appreciated here. After joining Astana and linking up with him again, I can only say that I see him in a very good state, both physically and mentally. I see him in a really good position. When I see all the support around him, it makes me believe we can win races.”
The race that generates all the headlines, of course, is that potential 35th stage victory at the Tour. When Cavendish walked back his planned retirement after crashing out of last year’s Tour, the assumption was that claiming outright possession of the record was his sole motivation.
Mørkøv, however, takes a more nuanced view of his decision to continue racing. At nearly 39 years of age, Cavendish must be driven to keep doing this by something more profound than a statistic. In fact, Mørkøv, who himself turns 39 in April, is convinced of it.
“My personal opinion is that he’s racing because he loves to race, and chasing another victory in the Tour de France is just an excuse to keep racing,” Mørkøv smiled. “That’s actually what I really admire about Mark, he’s one of the guys who loves competing. He absolutely loves it, whether it’s a smaller race or the Tour de France.
“Of course, the Tour de France is what everybody speaks about. But he’s just a rider who loves to ride his bike and compete, like myself – and that’s why we’re still here.”